Play a Kandinsky: A New Simulation Lets You Experience Kandinsky’s Synesthesia & the Sounds He May Have Heard When Painting “Yellow-Red-Blue”

Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky could hear col­ors. Maybe you can too, but since stud­ies so far have sug­gest­ed that the under­ly­ing con­di­tion exists in less than five per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, the odds are against it. Known as synes­the­sia, it involves one kind of sense per­cep­tion being tied up with anoth­er: let­ters and num­bers come with col­ors, sequences take on three-dimen­sion­al forms, sounds have tac­tile feel­ings. These unusu­al sen­so­ry con­nec­tions can pre­sum­ably encour­age unusu­al kinds of think­ing; per­haps unsur­pris­ing­ly, synes­thet­ic expe­ri­ences have been report­ed by a vari­ety of cre­ators, from Bil­ly Joel and David Hock­ney to Vladimir Nabokov and Niko­la Tes­la.

Few, how­ev­er, have described synes­the­sia as elo­quent­ly as Kandin­sky did. “Col­or is the key­board,” he once said. “The eye is the ham­mer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that pur­pose­ly sets the soul vibrat­ing by means of this or that key.”

That quote must have shaped the mis­sion of Play a Kandin­sky, a col­lab­o­ra­tion between Google Arts and Cul­ture and the Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou. Enlist­ing the com­po­si­tion­al ser­vices of exper­i­men­tal musi­cians Antoine Bertin and NSDOS, it gives even us non-synes­thetes a chance to expe­ri­ence the inter­sec­tion of sound and not just col­or but shape as well, in some­thing of the same man­ner as the pio­neer­ing abstract painter must have.

As explained in the Lis­ten­ing In video above, Kandin­sky heard yel­low as a trum­pet, red as a vio­lin, and blue as an organ. An image of suf­fi­cient chro­mat­ic and for­mal vari­ety must have set off a sym­pho­ny in his head, much like the one Play a Kandin­sky gives us a chance to con­duct. As an inter­face it uses his 1925 paint­ing Yel­low-Red-Blue, each ele­ment of which, when clicked, adds anoth­er synes­thet­ic lay­er of sound to the mix. These visu­al-son­ic cor­re­spon­dences are based on Kandin­sky’s own col­or the­o­ries as well as the music he would have heard, all processed with the for­mi­da­ble machine-learn­ing resources at Google’s com­mand. “What was he try­ing to make us feel with this paint­ing?” Play a Kandin­sky asks. But of course he did­n’t have just one set of emo­tions in mind for his view­ers, and mak­ing that pos­si­ble was per­haps the most endur­ing achieve­ment of his jour­ney into abstrac­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Evo­lu­tion of Kandinsky’s Paint­ing: A Jour­ney from Real­ism to Vibrant Abstrac­tion Over 46 Years

Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky Syncs His Abstract Art to Mussorgsky’s Music in a His­toric Bauhaus The­atre Pro­duc­tion (1928)

Time Trav­el Back to 1926 and Watch Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky Make Art in Some Rare Vin­tage Video

An Artist with Synes­the­sia Turns Jazz & Rock Clas­sics Into Col­or­ful Abstract Paint­ings

Artist Turns Famous Paint­ings, from Raphael to Mon­et to Licht­en­stein, Into Inno­v­a­tive Sound­scapes

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Peter says:

    I’ve been play­ing Kandin­sky and many oth­er artists as well as plan­ets, dancers and pret­ty much any­thing with my soft­ware pixound for years (since the 80’s). I even got a patent on trans­lat­ing col­or to music. Try it your­self with the pixound app if you have an iPhone or iPad. Enjoy!

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